carl abbott
Carl Abbott in his office in Sarasota, 2012. Jules Gibson

To say that Carl Abbott is a talented architect does not begin to describe the delightful man, or the insightful artist, that I had the pleasure of meeting recently. As an art history major in college, I was particularly excited by the opportunity to discuss architecture with such a renowned professional. Eager to be on time for our appointment, I followed his directions explicitly, only to find myself going in circles. I passed his driveway twice, before noticing an obscure sign peeking out of the dense tropical foliage framing the road. After maneuvering my car through the jungle, in search of an open place to park, I embarked on my journey to find an actual door. Regretting my choice of heels for this occasion, I fought my way through the landscape, until a kind voice called to me, “it’s over here, dear.”

It is so very fitting that Abbotts’ office springs out of a jungle. The sleek modern lines and glass appear to grow directly from the earth. It is unclear what came first, the building or the landscaping, which was undoubtedly Abbotts’ intention, an idea central to his life’s work.

Purchase on Amazon Now Throughout his life, Carl Abbott has forged a path uniquely his own. This path has been filled with friends and mentors, known to the rest of the world as giants of modern architecture. Abbott’s own monumental architectural legacy has recently been encapsulated in a new book, IN/FORMED BY THE LAND. The book tells the unique story of Carl Abbott from his youth in the ‘low-country’ of Georgia. Large images give viewers a strong sense of experiencing Abbott’s work and its connection to the land. Working closely with photographers and designers, Abbott carefully planned the book to ensure it conveyed the experience of moving through the highly choreographed spaces he designs.

With such professional success, one might expect to meet a man made egotistical by his accomplishments. Instead, he is unassuming and charming; an intellectual with a breadth of knowledge and introspection, and yet surprisingly, without a hint of pretension or superiority.

After obtaining his Masters of Architecture at Yale, the world was literally open to Abbott. He worked in Hawaii for a while, before traveling the world to study ancient architecture. After spending time in London, he decided to settle in Sarasota, where he had found the perfect spot to raise his two sons, and develop his architectural philosophy.

His friends from Yale, Lord Norman Foster and Lord Richard Roger, chose a different path, becoming Lords, literally by title, reigning over the global architectural empire, Foster + Partners. The behemoth architectural firm has designed some of the most important buildings of our time.

Abbott recounted to me one of their conversations, which highlights the paradox of their two different worlds. Abbott was visiting Foster in Paris when Foster asked him how he was able leave his office for a vacation.

Abbott replied, “Well, there are 10 of us.”

“How ideal,” Foster observed.

“How many people are there in your office? ” Abbott asked.

“Well let’s see, there are 1,000 architects, in the six offices. My offices are like the Early British Empire, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire.’  The sun never sets on our offices either, they are open 24 hours a day, to be able to communicate with each other,” Foster said.

“How ideal to have a 1,000 architects to carry out your work,” responded Abbott.

Caribbean Hilltop Home design by Carl Abbott
Caribbean Hilltop Home design by Carl Abbott

Turning to me Abbott says, “The grass is always greener in theory, but my situation is truly ideal for me. I feel really comfortable in towns that are smaller, where you feel more a part of the community. Sarasota was the perfect place for me to work and raise my two sons.”

To begin our interview, I started with a fundamental question. What are some of the cornerstones of your philosophy of architecture?

I know that architecture can shape one’s life in a most positive way. One of my favorite architectural quotes is actually from Winston Churchill, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

I’m very influenced by the way the ancient civilizations placed their buildings, sighting them in the world, in nature. That is a key to my architecture.

The typical architectural approach is that you start with a form and you make things work around it. Our approach is the reverse of the typical. We find out what the elements are, and what the elements want to focus on in nature, and the form evolves from the idea.

The way the sun enters a building became important. It is not necessarily about the shape of the land, it is nature itself. I always tie landscape into my work.

Casa Del Ceilo by Carl Abbott
Casa Del Ceilo by Carl Abbott

How do you see architecture evolving today?

When the camera was invented, everyone said well, there is no point in painting anymore. But in reality it opened a whole new world.

When modern architecture was introduced, people were saying these new materials are going to kill architecture. In the early 1900s, when new materials started to emerge, large sheets of glass, concrete slabs, steel, etc… Architects were frantic, doing Neo-Gothic, Neo-Egyptian, neo-everything. Then the engineers and the people at the Bauhaus said, no, let’s use these materials, and that changed everything, which in turn paved the way for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Organic School, and what we now define as modern architecture.

Wright and the Bauhaus were both very influenced by each other’s work, they learned a great deal from each other. Wright focused on everything coming from the earth, while the Bauhaus separated the earth from the building. The Sarasota School of Architecture melded the two concepts together. In fact, only in Sarasota and Los Angeles did this melding of ideas foster. Between the two, the Bauhaus School and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Organic School, my work certainly leans towards the Organic School.

So as to your question, where architecture can go from here, I do see a potential problem in the classrooms. Today, I see students relying so much on computers. Their studies of buildings are often things that you could only do with a computer.

While technology has opened a new world, has it made us lazy? Archtiecture is becoming more generic in America. I call it the Disneyesque of architecture. How do you see it? 

I am surprised by what so many people, who could afford to live in any home they wanted, pick. They choose something that is totally nostalgic, that has nothing to do with the world today. It is almost like they want to live like Alice in Wonderland. It’s an unreal world they are trying to escape into, this Never Neverland.

Some people say modern architecture is too slick and cold. Modern architecture can be as warm as you want it to be. Some of Wright’s buildings are amazing, they are almost too warm and fuzzy. Modern architecture has an enormous range, it can be based on nature, on environmental concerns, on the computer, on technology, based on color, on shapes, it is endless, totally endless. Saying modern architecture is sterile and cold is only looking at one tiny little piece. There are so many more layers to consider.

You go to Spain, and they are doing some wonderful things today, and yet, American’s call their new buildings Spanish, but really it is what the Spaniards were doing over 100 years ago.

I know Sarastoa is a special place to you. As the city grows, how would you like to see the architecture evolve? Say you were the city planner or mayor, what direction would you take? 

I went to Santiago de Compostela in Spain with Norman once. The mayor of the city was an architect.  His philosophy really resonated with me. He said, “We have some of the most important buildings in Europe, some of the most beautiful buildings. We will only have the best of new buildings to compliment our old buildings. To copy our buildings would be to deface and destroy them. They are the best of their period, we want only the best of our period.”

So certainly, if I were the mayor, I would say just that. We want to improve, not go backwards, we want to improve on the environment we have here. I would encourage buildings that respond to the land, the views… We have an amazing legacy here in Sarasota, compared to most cities, especially in America.

Of all the cities I’ve ever been to, the most ideal city is Vancouver. In concept, Vancouver is what I call “the new world city.” It would be a wonderful concept in Sarasota. New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, all of these cities are in a European style. They were designed as three or four stories, and it just got bigger. So now there are tunnels everywhere.

Most cities are built as walls of buildings, and the higher they get, the more they block the light. The more they create wind tunnels. In Vancouver, you cannot build a high-rise next to another high rise. So Vancouver is a city of towers, some very large, and then the roads are on a grid. But you never have a tunnel, the shadow passes you, it doesn’t linger. It is a beautiful concept of a city.

Some people don’t like high-rises. Well, to have a city, you have to have density. So, what is the better way, to mash it down, or is it better to put some towers up so you actually can see the views and get the light and air? If I were mayor, I would encourage this approach. I would encourage the use of height, structures with space between the towers. I like height verses low mass buildings, so that you can have more trees, more parks, more open areas, more of nature.

“More of nature,” a fitting end to an insightful conversation.